It took more than 20 break-ups for Melissa Meagher to realise her six-year on-and-off relationship with her ex had to end for good.
Only it was causing the 47-year-old Brisbane mother-of-two increasing amounts of angst – the friends abandoning her, the instability, and that throbbing sense of loneliness that envelopes you when you are in a profoundly unhappy relationship.
“It’s very destructive,” she told Mamamia, and it’s why when a new study was released last week with findings on just how toxic on-again off-again relationships could be, she found herself nodding in agreement.
The research, published in journal Family Relations, quizzed 545 people to assess the impacts of on-and-off relationship cycles. It found there were high rates of mental health issues as well as general distress. These relationships are also associated with poorer communication, lower commitment levels and higher abuse rates.
What’s even sadder, is that through the accumulation of relationship transitions, each new iteration tends to be worse than the one before it.
Sixty per cent of adults have experienced on-again off-again relationships. Study co-author and University of Missouri associate professor Kate Monk said while breaking up could sometimes help partners realise the importance of their relationship, those who were routinely splitting were putting their wellbeing at risk.
“(These people) need to ‘look under the hood’ of their relationships to determine what’s going on,” Monk said.
Meagher wishes it hadn’t taken her so long to do that, but stresses it is easier than many realise to slip into cyclical relationship patterns, because things are not always abysmal.
She said when she and her ex got together shortly after her marriage ended, she cherished the support she got from him. Intellectually and physically, they had a lot to offer one another.
But soon enough, problems that had been mere whispers would grow louder, impossible to ignore.
Meagher felt she wasn't getting enough affection, enough attention, enough validation. He felt the opposite.
They'd fight, and they'd break up. For a little while.
Meagher said she returned to the fractured relationship because her head would trick her into into thinking it was right - they both knew each other so well, and they'd invested so much time.
"You know it, it's not new or unknown, and you block out the bad bits. You always hope it's going to be different," she said.
"You also can get addicted to that toxicity, the drama... Pretending this is simply all happening to you, and you don't have a say in it.
"But the reality is, the inherent problems will always be there."
Then, it was over Easter this year, which she spent completely alone, that she she had an "epiphany".
"I was on my own at Easter. I very sad, and very emotional, and I started having physical reactions," Meagher said.
She found herself crying uncontrollably. She also got her period for the first time in years despite her contraceptive; something she has put down to the emotional turmoil.
Meagher said she went out for a walk to try to clear her head, and she decided then and there to kill the relationship once and for all.
"I was blaming everything on him. And I realised it was about me, he just wasn't the person I wanted to be with... This situation wasn't acceptable for me," she said.
"Listening to my heart and trusting my heart helped me walk away.
"I never saw him again. I sent him a text and said this isn't working for me and he just wrote back, 'yep' and that was it."
Looking back, Meagher said she "still feel[s] sad".
"It was a very big relationship. But I know he's not the right person for me and it would never have worked. We're very different people.
"There were things I wanted in a relationship that he couldn't give to me."
Her message to anyone struggling with an on-and-off relationship is to stop giving up their power and to instead seize control of the situation.
"Stop hoping it will be different, and don't look for external validation. Work on yourself. You are enough."
Meagher, who is a Talking Money finance coach, said she felt her experience had also meant she was better able to work with and help clients going through similar troubles - as money stress is so often a symptom of relationship cycling.
For Sydney-based couples counsellor Hailee Walker, on-again off-again relationships are so common, she sees it daily in her practice. In some cases, the cycles span decades.
"The common threads are often fundamental differences in the individuals wants, needs and expectations in a relationship," Walker said.
"There is always one element that is the same, and that is: the promises that things will be different next time."
She said the Family Relations study findings echoed what she saw in her own work.
"In my experience, the uncertainty of on again, off again relationships can create a lot of distress, anxiety, sadness, resentment, trust issues (is he or she just going to leave me again) and also grief," Walker said.
"When the expectation or pattern is that the couple will reunite as they have done so again and again, there isn’t an opportunity to be able to heal or really work on and resolve the issues that caused the break-up in the first place. It is almost like all of these emotions begin to build up or piggy back on each other... and they enter into the next cycle, in a worse place and with a lot more baggage."
Walker's advice to anyone caught in an on-off relationship is to thoroughly examine the reasons for the break-ups. If these issues are realistically able to be resolved, there is hope. If not, things will most likely come to the same bitter end.
"It is time to walk away for good when you are not seeing any changes or the problems aren’t being actively worked through. When you understand what you want and need from the relationships, objectively look at if your partner can meet those wants and needs. If not, it is time to walk away and stay away."
Have you experienced an on-again off-again relationship? What did you do? Tell us in the comments below.
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